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Avatar Academics

By Ajay Singh

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Is virtual reality the next frontier for universities? Some of the most famous names in education — including UCLA — are teaching in cyberspace.

The librarian needs a makeover. "This head I have on is a little too big and funny looking," she remarks. "And I could do with some new shoes."

Click, click, click — Esther Grassian scans the note cards on her computer monitor. "Lots of designers offer outfits, prim shoes, plus there is some skin and great hair on offer," reads one card.

Avatar Academics

Meet at the intersection of the real world and cyber life. Log on to Second Life at To watch Professor Nesson’s YouTube video on his SL class, visit and type in "ivygate."

"Wow!" she gushes. "You really could spend a lifetime here."

Grassian, an information literacy outreach coordinator at UCLA's College Library, doesn't really need a new hairdo. She wants one for her avatar, or online alter-ego, Alexandria Knight. Her puppet representative is a virtual-world librarian, and it's through Knight that Grassian serves residents of a vast 3-D metaverse called Second Life, helping them with research, information and critical thinking. Residents on SL, as Second Life is called for short, are all cartoonlike virtual characters created by people in RL, or real life. SL is similar to video games, with one big difference: There's no monster-slaying, and users provide and own all the content. That includes everything from dog parks and casinos to businesses and extraterrestrial civilizations. SL even has a newspaper, the Second Life Herald (a reporter for Reuters is embedded in the virtual world 24/7). And anyone can buy and sell digital real estate using an online currency pegged to the U.S. dollar.

Owned by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, SL is one of the largest and most talked-about digital realms on the Internet. Starwood Hotels has built a property there, kind of a trial run for an RL hotel. Rep. George Miller (D–7th District, CA), chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, held a Town Hall meeting in SL following the swearing in of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And in January, tech-savvy Sweden announced plans to be the first nation to open a virtual embassy in SL.

Now higher education is hearing the siren call of cyberspace.

At last count, 81 universities, colleges and schools — all but eight of them from the United States — were offering courses or educational programs on SL. The UC Office of the President recently teamed up with UC Berkeley's School of Information to explore the potential of virtual worlds. UC Berkeley archaeologist Ruth Tringham is inviting undergraduate students to work as research apprentices to design a Turkish village in Second Life. At UC Davis, Professor of Psychiatry Peter Yellowlees is using SL to help people understand what it's like to suffer from schizophrenia — by letting them "experience" its symptoms in the context of a virtual community health clinic. Harvard, Stanford, New York University and Pennsylvania State University, among others, also have a presence in SL.

Just this past January, the UCLA Library set up shop inside SL, becoming the sixth major library to do so. (All told, there are about 370 library staff in SL, and another 880 or so "friends" of that virtual group.) The library plans to exhibit UCLA's extensive digital collections, including an archive of local, state and federal electoral campaign materials over the decades that affect the Los Angeles area. UCLA's virtual library will also provide Web links to an array of its existing services, resources and tips aimed at enhancing the academic success of graduate and undergraduate students.

"Our SL presence will mature as we develop expertise and get to know our audience," explains Grassian, adding: "We would like to know about courses and research planned or being conducted in SL by UCLA faculty and students so that we can support their efforts there."

And the California State University, the nation's largest four-year university system, serving more than 400,000 students, may use virtual reality to meet the challenge of growing enrollment. The university's chancellor, Charles Reed, recently said at an education and research conference in San Francisco that he would like students to telecommute more, meeting with faculty and peers one day a week on campus and using the rest of the work week exploring virtual worlds and downloading information to complete their course work.

The Virtual Vanguard

Although SL boasts 2 million registered players, the number of regular users at any one time may be only about 100,000. The most hardcore are tech-savvy and imaginative — their avatars walk, run, fly, swim or hang around, instant-messaging each other for online entertainment, artistic creation and exchange.

Many of these early adopters are academics. Grassian, for example, uses SL to collaborate with librarians, educators and computer technicians around the world. The collaborations are aimed at learning about various educational sites in SL and sharing ideas and tips for instructional activities as well as information, research and reference services.

Grassian signed up for SL a year ago after attending a two-day online conference on educational gaming sponsored by the New Media Consortium (NMC), an independent organization comprising some 236 colleges, universities and research centers worldwide that promotes the use of new media and new technology to support learning. Such forays would have been unimaginable just a year ago. But as Web-based technologies improve, so does the promise of conducting relatively low-cost research in synthetic worlds. "Imagine how a few well-designed experiments about socialism in 1870 might have affected world history," says Edward Castronova, an economist renowned for his studies of virtual worlds. "The idea would cost $20 million to $50 million, but it would also dramatically improve business as usual in a large chunk of the university."

Esther Grassian’s Second Life doppelganger, avatar Alexandria Knight, poses in front of the UCLA Library in Second Life’s Cybrary City.

For universities, the timing appears to be right, given that a virtual-world presence is likely to "take off in a way that will echo the rise of the Web in the mid-1990s," according to the 2007 "Horizon Report" by the NMC.

Higher education, says this highly regarded report, will be transformed over the next five years, thanks partly to two major trends. The first revolves around the fact that we are all awash in a sea of "user-generated content," thanks to blogospheres, YouTube photo streams, wikibooks and machinima clips, which are rapidly changing the very nature of news and information. "The notions of collective intelligence and mass amateurization are pushing the boundaries of scholarship," says the NMC report, adding: "It's all about the audience — and the audience is no longer merely listening."

Alexandria Knight strolls through the Malcolm Brown Library on the campus of the New Media Consortium (NMC). The library is modeled on the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

The second trend revolves around the growing use of the Internet for social interaction, rather than just as a resource for information. "Increasingly, this is the reason students log on — the Web sites that draw people back again and again are those that connect them with friends, colleagues or even total strangers who have a shared interest," says the report, adding: "Social networking may represent a key way to increase student access to and participation in course activities."

Learning Logs On

Little wonder, then, that Ball State University's students discuss their assignments on SL — while their avatars cavort at a tiki bar. Meanwhile, students of a Pepperdine University distance-learning course meet every fortnight to learn, as well as explore, what it's like to be part of an online community.

A glimpse into how some institutions are balancing the challenge of digital interactivity with the real world came last fall when Harvard University offered its first course on SL. Titled "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion," 40 students signed up for it — and then some of them studied the same course along with 50 Harvard Law School students on campus, thereby effectively blending the physical and digital worlds.

A virtual bird’s-eye view of the sprawling NMC campus in Second Life.

The course was promoted, in a dizzying display of virtual virtuosity, by Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson, who taught the course in the real world, and his daughter, Rebecca, a computer scientist at Harvard and instructor at the university's Extension School, who conducted CyberOne in SL. In a promotional video on, the professor putters up to the steps of Harvard Law School on a black motor scooter. Standing in front of the building's steps, Nesson introduces the concept of the class: "about argument, but not argument in a courtroom ... argument in the new integrated media space that I call cyberspace."

Nesson notes that while teaching would be done by his daughter in SL and himself in RL, the students' arguments would appear on blogs, podcasts, wiki and community television.

One of an endless number of places to relax in the vast virtual realm, populated by avatars both familiar and strange.

The professor turns and begins to climb the stairs — and the scene instantly shifts to its virtual-world doppelganger, with Nesson's avatar climbing virtual steps into the virtual version of the same building. Inside, he walks into the large classroom in which the course will be taught. Floating 10 feet or so off the ground is Rebecca, who takes over the description of the course.

"The essence of the class was to bring students to a realization that in the Internet environment, each one of them is potentially a digitally enhanced superhero," says Nesson. "Everyone can step up and speak to anyone with these extraordinary powers of communication, where the challenge is to choose your message and frame it so that you gather audience."

What's the Second Life Span?

Despite the power and promise of the new digital democracy (Time magazine's 2006 "Person of the Year" was, after all, "You"), the precise pedagogical methods and goals of virtual education are still far from clear.

Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson and his daughter, Rebecca, joined to teach a law course in Second Life at Harvard Extension School, which they promoted in a video on YouTube that showcased virtual learning’s virtuosity.

"It's a tremendous resource for urban planners, architects and those who deal with spatial representation," says Leah Lievrouw, a professor at the UCLA Department of Information Studies and 2006-'07 Fellow of GSE&IS' Sudikoff Family Institute for Education & New Media. "But if I were teaching literature, I might wonder, ‘where am I going with this?' "

Maybe it's just a matter of time. Grassian's SL experience, for example, is stirring up interest on campus from faculty who are intrigued by the idea of virtual education. They include scholars such as Communication Studies Assistant Professor Francis Steen, Writing Programs lecturer Lisa Gerrard (who has gotten herself an avatar), and Anthropology lecturer Dario Nardi, who teaches a remarkable lab course in "human complex systems." Nardi's students visit SL to conduct ethnographic research, including what it's like to take on a new identity, what sort of avatars they communicate with and which are the most popular places in the virtual world.

The virtues of learning virtually also are being explored on campus at UCLA Extension (as a possible subject for the Entertainment Studies program) and the Department of Design & Media Arts. In addition to virtual learning, UCLA is home to virtual realms re-creating present-day cities, future urban areas, ancient archaeological sites, famous cathedrals and other RL spaces. And the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and the Institute for Digital Research and Education is presenting a Digital Humanities Showcase on campus later this spring.

"At the moment, the biggest advantage for universities is a reputation for being aware of embracing newer technologies, and that's a very important consideration," concludes Michael Fatten, a master's student of telecommunications at Indiana University. "Because if you look at an educational institution as a business, it needs to attract 25 percent new customers every year, and a university that is slow to work with new technologies is going to be slow at attracting new students."